The Adventures
of
Frodo Gardner

Volume I
Where Many Paths and Errands Meet
By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 8, Part 8
Reunion at the Prancing Pony
(September 23, 1451)

The hobbits got a late start (for once Frodo had no objections to as hearty a meal as the Master of Buckland could lay out) but since they faced a much shorter journey than the day before, it didn't matter. A heavy overcast frowned upon the land, which looked somewhat bare and depressing outside the borders of The Shire, though in past days Frodo had loved the swoop and soar of the green hills to either side of the East/West road. He remembered how, as a child, he'd gotten a stiff neck from straining to see if he could spot anything ghostly about the hazy Barrow Downs. He always used to pay particular attention to a stretch where they said that little Tilda Greenbanks rode in one day and never rode out again, and more attention still to a distant spike of stone marking the barrow where his father once lay imprisoned in a spell. Now, though, he kept his eyes strictly ahead of him, while his father drew his pony up between Frodo and the downs, gripping the jewel and casting anxiously about. Merry road close on the other side, and Bleo followed behind.
 
"I've seen some strange sights out there," Bleo began.
 
"Be quiet, cousin," said Merry, and none of them spoke another word for miles.
 
At length a rain began to fall, at first in a bleak mist, then harder and harder as if all the tears for all the dead buried in these lands around spilled over them at once. Frodo gathered close his hood and wondered what kind of dreary future lay ahead of him. "I can always refuse," he reminded himself, and rode on.
 
When at last they could see Bree ahead in the distance, Merry finally smiled. "Do you remember how it also rained," he said to Sam, "the first time that we rode down here together?"
 
"That I do," Sam said, grinning back. "As if I didn't feel overwhelmed enough that night!"
 
Bleo said, "Well, there's a warm, dry inn at the end of our road, with cold wet drinks lined up for us, and that's all I care about!"
 
When they reached the gate, Tim, the Gatekeeper, threw wide the heavy doors without a pause. "Well, if it ain't the Master of Buckland! And the Shire Mayor, too? Is this a get-together of old friends, or a matter of great import?"
 
"Now would I tell you, Tim?" said Merry. "How's the rheumatism, by the way?"
 
"Not good, with the weather as it is, but that liniment you sent over helps. It's a good blend--foreign, is it? Not everybody cares about the bones of an old gatekeeper, sir."
 
"Well, they should," said Merry, and they rode on. "Especially in the import/export business," Merry murmured when they'd gotten out of earshot.
 
Frodo felt surprised when they'd reached the Prancing Pony at how small it actually looked to him. Of course it stood about four or five times as tall as any building in The Shire, but he'd last seen the place as a child, and then it had loomed over him as a hall fit for giants, thunderous and imposing, full of enormous guests who roared when they laughed and pounded huge mugs upon a bar so high above him that it might as well have been a mountain cliff. But he'd been to the King's court, since, of course, and now the old inn looked quaint and cozy--which suited him fine right then.
 
With relief Frodo surrendered his pony to the stable-boy and stretched his bones back into place, then headed eagerly for the common room with the others, soon liberated from their rain-soaked cloaks and calling out their orders in the close warmth of the yeasty, smoky air. The legendary Barliman's Barley Malt had been another mystery to Frodo as a lad. Not that he hadn't tried beer before then, just that the Gaffer's wake had supplied the occasion, within months of his passage through Bree, and so he had felt in no mood to taste beer again for another year, however marvelous. But now the famous beverage offered him a splendid first experience with which to celebrate his first day outside The Shire since childhood. Indeed, as a promise of things to come, the wall behind the bar sported a wooden sign with burnt-in letters proclaiming, "The King's Favrite Beare Served Heare!"
 
"Now go easy," his father warned him, as their mugs arrived. "It's stronger than what we serve at home."
 
"Yes sir," Frodo said, and tried not to reveal how he prolonged his sip into a disguised gulp. Ahhh, heaven! It was all they said, and more. "Wizard's brew," some called it, and indeed, by some magic he could taste autumn in the draught, and golden barley harvests, and the green, twining energy inside the vines of hops, and the malting sprout bursting with life from the seed's confines, the rich depths of the earth and the sparkle of a rainwashed sky. He felt the crispness of a cooling autumn night in every swallow, soon transformed into the warmth of sunlight ripening the grain. He felt the friendliness of reapers mowing side by side, hailing each other across the field, and the kindliness of the goodwife clucking over her fermenting tubs, and the bubbling mirth of fermentation itself, and all the good that went into the making of fine beer.
 
"I'll say it's strong," Merry chuckled, while Frodo marveled that half his mug had vanished between comment and reply. "One of the chief regrets of my life is that I wasn't there to see Cousin Frodo dancing on the table after his third mug! Singing that ridiculous song of Bilbo's and falling into the crockery."
 
Young Frodo pricked up his ears--that didn't sound like any of the other tales he'd heard about his tragic namesake, though he recalled some vague mention of the incident, soon swallowed up in darker matters. It warmed his heart to think of the poor fellow dancing, singing, probably laughing, as though nothing and no one could be tragic all the time. Maybe not even Mordor. Frodo knew they had grainfields in Mordor, around the sea of Nurnen; Papa had covered that, briefing him over supper last night. Frodo wondered if they grew hops as well. It cheered his heart just to think of it.
 
Frodo spotted a table full of merry hobbit-lasses, who giggled flirtatiously at his grin and tried to wave him over, offering fresh-baked cookies. He finished his drink and stood up to accept, but just then his father said, "So where's that messenger of yours, Bleoboris?" while grabbing his son by the belt. Frodo made an apologetic shrug to the ladies and sat back down.
 
"Over there, with the goblet and bottle. That tall, thin man in black and silver." Frodo turned and found himself regarded by the keenest gray eyes he'd ever encountered, in a strangely sculpted, not-quite-human face...
 
"That's no man," Frodo said. He had met elves before. "Legolas!" Sam and Merry cried out in joy. Sam burst into an ecstatic stream of Elvish, as fluent as it was grammatically incorrect, but as he hardly spoke his native tongue much better, that didn't matter. Legolas leaped across the room and embraced them both at once; he laughed with the music of water rushing through a forest stream, and answered Sam's greeting with words of intoxicating melody, though Frodo soon found his own limited grasp of the language quite overwhelmed.
 
"He's an elf?" Bleo said dubiously. "I guess they're not all they're cracked up to be, then." Frodo stared at Bleo like the hobbit had gone crazy. But then Papa pulled him forward and made introductions, and he shook the immortal's hand, and it felt warm and firm like any flesh, though the fingers seemed longer than the usual run.
 
Merry said, "But what are you doing in Strider's livery, Legolas? You have your own king, after all."
 
The elf laughed again. "This? I have to wear it if I want a drink around here." They looked at him, puzzled, and his smile faded. "But of course--you wouldn't know. You see with the eyes of the Third Age."
 
"I saw," Frodo blurted. When they turned to him he blushed and said, "That you're an elf."
 
"Of course he is," said Sam. "But I don't see what..."
 
"Bleo didn't know," Frodo added.
 
Legolas gave him another intense look; Frodo could almost feel it, like wind in his face, waking him up when he didn't know he'd drowsed. "I should not be surprised, considering who your father is--Sam always did see a little more than most." Now it was Sam's turn to blush. "But come, friends, let us sit down at a proper table while we still have such comforts, and eat, and drink, and enjoy all the merriment that we fought so hard to preserve."
 
As the elf led them to his table, Sam pulled Frodo aside and whispered, "Son, there's two things you need to know before we go any further. Number one: never, ever try to match drinks with an elf--they'll drink you under the table four times over, and wake you in the morning singing over breakfast."
 
"I see. And the second?"
 
Sam winked. "Never ask your Papa how he knows."
 
"Now, if I know hobbits," said Legolas, "you will like the steak and mushroom pie--you should, for I brought the mushrooms with me from Mirkwood, and taught Butterbur the recipe in return for forgiving me my tab. Butterbur," he called, "bring over one of our special pies for my friends, here, plus more beers for each of them, and by all the stars more wine for me!" As a hobbit server carried in the mugs and bottle, Legolas said, "Now tell me everything that has happened, Sam, since last we'd met--for my heart reminds me that you have many responsibilities at home, and cannot share my road much longer."
 
"I'll try," said Sam, "But I can't see much as would interest the son of Thranduil in our small doings."
 
"But all of it fascinates me, Sam--for it concerns you! Now tell me all, and don't hold back!" And so they plunged deep into the politics of the Shire, with all its absurdities, its charitable moments, its gossip and its common sense, together with supporting comments from the Buckland side of things.
 
Frodo looked longingly over at the table of the cookie-munching hobbit-lasses. However fascinated the elf might be by the career of Mayor Gamgee, Frodo had heard it all ten times before. But as a well-mannered young hobbit who respected his elders, he sat dutifully by his father's side, though he really wondered when they'd get down to the business that brought him here; he could hardly excuse himself until they had.
 
When a comely lass pulled out a pennywhistle and started up a lively tune, the others gathered up their skirts and danced along, some winking his way when they twirled on past. Frodo tried not to whimper as they all found partners that weren't him (including Bleo, of all people!) Instead he gave his beer the full attention it deserved (since his father and Legolas gave him nothing worth heeding) but the flavor kept reminding him of a harvest-party, hinting of apples and malted-oat cookies touched by a pleasant tang of smoke upon the air, overlaid with a savor of ripe straw trampled underfoot and the rich, bucolic scent of sun-browned bodies sweating in the dance, the party whirling around them faster and faster as the pennywhistle picked up speed...
 
He blinked, once more aware of the inn around him. He saw no sign of the hobbit lasses anymore, just a servant wiping up the cookie-crumbs. A pennywhistle trilled outside, fading into the distance amid laughter and shouted goodbyes. He put a steadying hand on the table and said, "Papa, I could really use some food."
 
Sam said, "Where is that dratted Butterbur, anyway? It's not like him to starve his guests."
 
Apologetically Legolas said, "We have had a few minor misunderstandings between us; I fear that serving me has not been high on his list of priorities."
 
"That's no reason to neglect me--I ain't Mayor for nothing." Sam stood and waved. "Hi! Butterbur!"
 
Barliman Butterbur came up at a trot surprising for one with hair so gray, their pie already steaming on its tray, saying, "Forgive me, Mayor Gamgee and Master Brandybuck! I had no idea it was you sittin' down here with Mr. Legolas." He set plates down in front of the hobbits.
 
"We forgive you," Legolas said cheerily. "Do I get a plate, too?"
 
Butterbur sighed and gave him one as well. "Now Mr. Legolas, I'm only doing this out of the kindness of my heart--and because I can trust these worthy hobbits to pay the rest of your bill for you! I've been a good sport, sending out for more of your favorite vintage and all, but you ran out of coin two days ago, and I haven't seen you do much to earn more."
 
"Do your customers still clamor for pies as fast as you can make them?" Legolas asked with a charming smile.
 
"Yes, but..."
 
"And have I not supplied you with the most flavorful mushrooms that you've ever imagined?"
 
"I suppose, but..."
 
"And did I not, as promised, sing such a merry song last night that it put everyone in the mood to order twice as many beers as they'd planned on, and did not the song draw in still more customers from the streets and the houses all around?"
 
"You were a lucky man that night."
 
"Was I, indeed?" Legolas said with a strange twinkle in his eye. "Well, then, I am lucky again, in the company I keep, for I know my friends will not be stingy with the King's own messenger."
 
"Of that, at least, I'm satisfied," said Butterbur, and bustled off to tend his other customers. Legolas sprang up onto the table and sat on it crosslegged, cutting the pie and serving slices to each of them, with a grace that belied his impish position on the furniture. Frodo found it incredible that anyone could look at him and not recognize the immortal here among them.
 
Sam said, mystified, "Butterbur mistook you, too," as Merry asked, "Legolas, are you in some kind of financial trouble?"
 
"Not exactly," Legolas said, finishing off his drink and pouring himself another. "We have no needs in my father's palace that we cannot meet with our own woodcraft. Mushroom gathering, for instance. How do you like the pie?"
 
"It's delicious!" Frodo said with his mouth full. "And the beer goes with it perfectly."
 
Merry said, "Of course the beer goes with it perfectly. Gandalf blessed it, so it goes with everything. Even," he said with a wink, "oatmeal cookies." Frodo blushed and kept his eyes on the steak and mushroom pie.
 
"'Not exactly', you say," Sam persisted. "I've been around enough to know that 'not exactly in trouble' means in trouble. What's going on, Legolas?"
 
"Well," said Legolas, "Trade has fallen off, so we lack for coin of the realm, not to mention the rustic delights of human wine." He raised his glass with a grin, balanced on his fingertip, but Frodo could see sorrow in the elven eyes, a deep, immeasurable sorrow that nothing could assuage. "I had some dwarf coin for awhile, but there never was much trade between Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain, and still less now with the dwarves so few."
 
"Has there been a falling-out between Mirkwood and Dale?" Merry asked. "I'm sure King Elessar could negotiate between..."
 
"They don't see us!" The voice rang out so piercing in its pain that Frodo thought for sure all heads would turn and the tavern would go silent. But the talk went on as blithely as before, as if nothing had happened, and the hair stood on end at the nape of Frodo's neck. "Merry, nobody has a falling out with people who don't exist."
 
"Don't exist?"
 
It suddenly came clear to Frodo. "The fading..."
 
"Ah," said Legolas, "Insightful lad--even as I said. Yes. The fading of the elves. At first we did not quite understand, ourselves, what happened before our eyes. We would go into Dale, and it seemed old friends would snub us, others would walk right past us without a glance, or bump into us at times, or we would go into taverns such as this and wait forever for service, and then leave unsatisfied. It did not happen all at once, mind you. At first people would still talk to us, but they might wander away in the middle of a conversation, or forget what we'd repeated three times, or lose the thread somehow. And they did not quite look at us--their eyes did not meet ours. From there it just got worse, until now we pass like ghosts in their very midst without remark. I discovered early on, though, that if I wore clothing made and worn by human beings, that they would see me then. But that, too, has its price."
 
Sam asked, "What price is that, old friend?"
 
"Ah, but your mugs have gone dry. We must take care of that."
 
"My mug has not gone dry," Sam argued.
 
"Really? Let me see." He took the mug from the hobbit and finished off its contents. "Looks dry to me. Let me buy you another round--Barliman, over here!" He stood and waved, then leaped off the table with a twist in the air, and landed into a seat beside the others.
 
Merry said, "You mean let me buy us another round."
 
"Yes, whatever. What's a few beers between friends?" Reflectively he added, "Not bad beer at that--perhaps I should...no. Wine for elves, beer for dwarves, and anything at all for men and hobbits." He handed the mug back to Sam and picked up his bottle and goblet again. "I'll settle for more of the same; this one's nearly done." He clasped the Bucklander's arm. "Thank you so much, Merry."
 
Sam persisted. "The price, Legolas. Tell us--we are your friends, just like you said."
 
For a moment Legolas simply drank the last of his wine and stared across the room, as though all the rest had become invisible, not him. Then, after the refills arrived and the server left again, he said, "Let me tell you a story--a small but true story that happened to me. I was walking through Dale, in clothing I'd borrowed from a mortal's clothesline (though I left a fine jeweled dagger in its place) when I came upon a child trying to coax a treed kitten from a branch high overhead, where the little thing hung from two paws, crying piteously. Well, no sooner seen than I ran up the trunk, onto the bough, then out onto a branch that would not have held human weight, but which I, of course, could walk as easily as a plain path upon the ground. I scooped the kitten up, dropped down, and delivered it to the boy, as his elders gathered around, marveling at what they saw. 'How'd you do that?' asked the boy. 'I am an elf,' I told him. 'You're lying!' he cried, and all the men laughed. I laughed, too, until I realized that they did not laugh at a child's folly, but at a joke whicxh they thought that I had made, that the child had seen through." He brooded into his drink, then finished it. "And then I laughed again, along with them, and winked, and walked away."
 
Sam squeezed the elf's arm, but said nothing.
 
As he poured himself another, Legolas said, "I had no idea what a hard thing Bilbo Baggins did when he lived hidden among us, invisible all the time and surviving by thievery."
 
Frodo said, "I was going to ask why King Elessar hasn't sent elven gardeners into Mordor, but I'm beginning to see the answer for myself."
 
Legolas smiled sadly. "How right you are, my little friend. But it is even worse than that." He drew himself up. "Once we were the mightiest people on the face of the Earth. Together with the Men of Gondor we broke the Morannon and stormed the very tower of Barad-Dur, confronting Sauron and all his legions by our terrible force of arms!"
 
Then he seemed to shrink before their very eyes. "Now, though, our kind can hardly bear to breath the air of that dark realm, though Sauron has not held it for a generation of men. We are not what we were." Again he sipped and said no word, but they waited for him to continue. "I alone have ventured in," he said at last, "to see for myself the plight of the people in that shadowed land. And no, they did not see me." Then suddenly he grinned and tossed the cup high into the air, catching it again without spilling a drop. "But did you know, my friends, that elf-blood runs in the veins of Nurnen's men?"
 
"Really?" Sam said. "I would've never guessed!"
 
"Some elf, some dwarf, and even some orc, all mingled together with the human kind. Whichever prisoners fell into the Dark Lord's hands, he housed them all crammed together in the same small towns when they became his slaves, and some found comfort in each other's arms." He paused, reflecting over his wine. "Not much orc, actually--they have no skill in growing anything, and Sauron saw no use in sending them to farm. But some."
 
Frodo asked, "Why couldn't you help them farm, Legolas? Surely if you dressed like them you could pass for human enough for them to notice you."
 
The elf laughed. "Because I am a hunter, not a farmer. Mirkwood has never been known for great sundrenched fields--we have no art for farming. We used to turn to Dale for that; now we live on acorn-bread and drink the ferment of our wild berries." He played a moment with his glass, saying, "No, vineyards cannot grow in the shadows of that wood." Then Legolas gave the young hobbit his full attention, leaning down low on his arms so that they could face each other eye-to-eye. "And that is where you come in, Frodo. You do have an art for growing food of every kind, or Sam would not have picked you for this post. What do you say, child of my friend? Have you had enough time to consider our proposal?"
 
Instead of answering, Frodo asked, "What's it like in Mordor?"
 
"Actually, it has its own kind of beauty, sometimes, with the fumes of the Dark Lord cleared away, so that you can see the jagged lines of mountains stark against a field of stars. Not a hobbit's kind of beauty, certainly, nor an elf's, really--though I think the Noldor could have appreciated it. Dwarves might understand." He laughed at himself. "And maybe that's why I understand--I have spent such hours with Gimli that I can gaze on a line of mountains or the time-colored fracture in a rock, and see the harsh beauty of a winter thorn tree sparkling in ice."
 
"That's not quite what I'm asking," Frodo said.
 
The elf's eyes turned dark and serious on him. "I know what you are asking. I know what I need to tell you. Do you really want to hear it?"
 
"I do," said Frodo. "I have to."
 
Legolas sat back up again. "Mordor is a place where spindly-limbed children lack the strength to play, their bellies swollen up on vapors from their stomachs eating themselves. It is a place where men have murdered each other fighting over the flesh of a rat. It is a place where women sweep together straw and try to grind it into flour." Legolas shuddered, took a long deep draught, and in a husky voice said, "I saw, Frodo, a woman drop dead in the street for having given all her food to her child. I saw that child pull down the neck of the dead woman's gown, remembering a breast that once gave milk, but she had no breast left, so the child just lay upon the woman and waited to die, himself, till someone else came by, one who already had too many mouths to feed, and carried the boy away."
 
Frodo sat back, stunned. He took refuge in his beer, but that final swallow filled him with such magical pictures of harvest and plenty, crashing headlong into the scenes that Legolas described, that his head spun with a war between two worlds. Yet whatever wizard-spell lay on the beer, it had not been shaped to obscure the suffering of others. Eventually the harvest images overlaid the scenes of famine, not to hide them, but to reveal what could be. What he himself could cause to happen. It overwhelmed him. Tears started in his eyes--not just of pity, but in awe of the beauty of being able to do something positive to change the circumstance he pitied, of being, when it came right down to it, chosen for the task. And it might well be that no one could make much difference, least of all him, chosen or not, yet still he could improve the world for trying, and he felt the strength in him for trying, and a hope flooded through him, and all fear swept away.
 
He sat down his empty mug. "I'm in," he said.
 
"Excellent!" said the elf, clapping him on the back. "Speaking of in, it is time we all turned in for the night, I think. Especially since..." and he turned the bottle upside down, without a drop left in it. With that he headed straight for the stairs, but rather than take the steps themselves, he skipped right up onto the bannister and tripped along its slender length as lightly as a laugh, while he sang a haunting elvish tune the whole way up.
 
Sam chuckled to watch him. "My, my! It seems that even an elf can have a drop too much. I've never seen Legolas act up like this in all my born days."
 
"Not too surprising," said Merry, "Considering that we'd left him stranded here for who knows how long waiting for us. Mortal lodgings do tend to annoy elves."
 
"Are you both blind?" Frodo exclaimed. "He's defyin' everyone in the whole blessed inn to see him for what he is!"
 
Sam raised a brow. "Seems he's not the only one who's had a drop too much, if you're taking that tone with your elders."
 
Frodo sighed in frustration. "Sorry." He couldn't shake the melancholy in those keen, gray eyes. "Let's just go to bed," he muttered.
 
"I should think so." But Sam put his arm around his son nevertheless, guiding him to the hobbit quarters on the ground floor. As they prepared for bed, Sam said to Frodo, "I'm proud of you, lad. I mean, I knew you'd agree to say yes--that's you all over--but I'm proud to hear it, all the same."
 
"Thanks, Papa." He turned May's magnifying glass in the candlelight before laying it down and blowing the candle out. "May'd be pleased with the start I'm gettin' on this adventure," he said drowsily.
 
"Oh? And why is that?"
 
"Frothy head," he murmured, and tumbled into sleep.
 
In the common room, Tim the Gatekeeper had come off his shift and Butterbur poured him his nightly brew. The old innkeeper glanced up the stairs approvingly. "That Mr. Legolas sure is a character," he chuckled, "and no mistake. A regular mountebank. Did you see that stunt with the bannister? And after the night he'd made of it, too. Adds color, he does. Why, I'd be happy to give him free room and board for all his songs and stunts, if I didn't think he'd empty my wine cellar too fast."
 
"Why should you care?" Tim asked. "Folks come around here for the beer, anyway. Who gives a hoot about the wine?"
 
Up in his room Legolas lay in his bed, eyes open, trying one more time to blend the living night with dreams in elven fashion. His sharp night-vision showed him a bare expanse of ceiling that a spider crawled across, and nothing more. In the room to his left a couple fought with wounding words that wouldn't heal by morning. To his right someone had a hacking cough that just went on and on. Below him someone snored so loudly that he could hear it rumble through the floor. Above him someone dropped his boots with a pair of thuds and a grumble about old bones. The elf at last shut tight his eyes, and tears squeezed out and trickled off his face.

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